Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

In search of the MacGuffin

I considered opening this post in the style of Dashiell Hammett:

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal.

Or Raymond Chandler:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them.

I resisted the temptation. But I felt momentarily like a fictional detective in search of a secret. My quarry was “the MacGuffin.” 

A MacGuffin, sometimes spelled MaGuffin or Macguffin or even Mcguffin, is the term used to describe the object that drives the plot in a fictional narrative. It’s the Maltese Falcon statuette, the meaning of Charles Foster Kane’s last word, the Ark of the Covenant, Tolkien’s ring, Casablanca’s letters of transit, and any number of briefcases with secret papers. If you go back far enough, it’s the Holy Grail or the Golden Fleece. It gives characters something to chase after and fight over.

But this narrative device has only been called “MacGuffin” since the era of film—and some screenwriters even used the alternative term “weenie” (or sometimes “wenie”) before MacGuffin became popular. The Oxford English Dictionary defines MacGuffin this way:

In a film (now also in a novel or other form of narrative fiction): a particular event, object, factor, etc., presented as being of great significance to a character or characters, but often having little actual importance for the plot as it develops.

The chief popularizer of the term was the English filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock and the earliest OED citation is from 1939, citing the typescript of a 30 March lecture of his at Columbia University:

In regard to the tune, we have a name in the studio, and we call it the “MacGuffin.” It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is always the necklace and in spy stories it is always the papers. We just try to be a little more original.

That quote doesn’t actually appear in the published version of Hitchcock’s lecture: it apparently occurred the question-and-answer session. In his 1962 interviews with François Truffaut, Hitchcock went on to explain that MacGuffin “might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train.”

One man says, ‘What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?’ And the other answers, ‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin’. The first one asks, ‘What’s a MacGuffin?’ ‘Well,’ the other man says, ‘it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ The first man says, ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ and the other one answers, ‘Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!’ So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.

That’s a rather obscure and obtuse explanation, and it echoes a similar story about a mongoose, as is detailed in Garson O’Toole’s 2018 discussion on quoteinvestigator.com. Perhaps the point of the story is to not inquire too closely about what the MacGuffin is.   

In any event, Hitchcock told that story often, in various forms. But where did he get the term “MacGuffin” from? 

Those who worked with Hitchcock attributed the term to a writer named Angus MacPhail, whose screen credits include Spellbound and The Wrong Man. Perhaps MacPhail was the source of the Scottish anecdote, so I took a look in the 1965 Scots National Dictionary. There is no MacGuffin listed but there is a maguffin. That’s a Scottish term for “A foolish, blundering person, an oaf.” There’s even a citation to an 1832 poem by William Scott with the lines:

Here comes the bold rake an’ the smudget, From ev’ry quarter like a floodgate, Just to see fat game they wou’d get, These wild maguffins.

The Scots National Dictionary gives the possible etymology as coming from the slang word guffin, with a rhythmic syllable ma attached. With that clue, we can find the OED entry for guffin: “A stupid, clumsy person,” cited in various nineteenth century reference works.  

Maybe there is another layer to Hitchcock’s anecdote about the MacGuffin. Maybe the writers knew they were sending detectives on a fool’s errand.

Featured image by by Denise Jans via Unsplash

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.